The Sober Basi Revolt *


In any festivity or occasion happening around the world, an alcoholic drink always has to be involved. In fact, it is nearly impossible to completely make sense of the our history without one. As the American poet John Ciardi once said, “Fermentation and civilization are inseparable”. During the recent celebration of Guling-Guling, an almost 400-year old Fat Tuesday tradition in my hometown Paoay, one of the rituals that we revived and started highlighting again was the ceremonial public basi toast. Basi is an Ilocano alcoholic beverage made from sugarcane juice that is fermented and aged in a burnay, a traditional earthenware.

To understand better what is so special about the basi, I went to another town 20 minutes east of Laoag City. The town of Piddig – a small, still sleepy town on the foot of the Philippine Cordilleras – has always been known amongst Ilocanos as the place where the best basi is made. However, the town, nowadays, may have a better recall to the younger generations instead as the hometown of athlete Teofilo Ildefonso. Upon entering the town, visitors are greeted with several signage and markers reminding them that this is not only the basi capital of the Ilocos region, but, more importantly, it was the place where a local rebellion against the Spanish government started. As one approaches closer to the town proper, it is also hard to miss the humble shrine dedicated to the heroes behind the town’s single most important source of pride, the Basi Revolt of 1807.


Tip of the Iceberg, Symbol of a Movement
My initial thoughts were, “How can alcohol and a fight ever be the best idea anyone can come up with?” It was just difficult, yet fun, to imagine intoxicated men waging an attack against the authorities. However, during my conversations with Mario Tejada, a senior member of the town’s cultural and historical council, he explained to me that the Basi Revolt carried with it deeper and darker sentiments of the Ilocano people at that time.

“The locals of Piddig were already tired of the injustices and abuses of the Spaniards, as well as fed up in having to render free and voluntary services for public works”, Tejada further shared while pointing to the direction of the baroque Sta. Ana church, suggesting that the structure is one of the most enduring legacies of forced labor in town. But, it was only when the Spanish authorities decided to monopolize and control the basi trade, imposing low prices and dictating scales of production, that the locals organized themselves, broke their silence, and fought back.

In his study on the Basi Revolt, researcher Jayson Antonio suggested that during those times basi was one of the only few — and free! – pleasures in life available to the masses: they drink it after a day of hard work in the fields, it socially binds people together, and it plays various important roles throughout the entire life-cycle of an Ilocano (i.e., they drink basi to celebrate birth and marriage, they offer basi to the deities in the hopes of a better harvest, they use basi in a ritualistic ablution after a funeral, among others). It comes then as no surprise that the colonizer’s prohibition to basi making and consumption caused a massive disruption to the Ilocano way of life, something that the people of Piddig were more than willing to fight and die for.

The 20-Day Basi Revolt: From Piddig to Gongogong River
It is said that the sufferings of the Ilocanos caused by the tobacco monopoly of 1782 and basi monopoly of 1786 provoked the locals of Piddig to hold arms, marching towards Vigan to protest. While the authorities saw these policies as means to generate more profit, the Ilocanos, on the other hand, saw them as being unfair, oppressive and unnecessary. Nevertheless, despite the monopoly and possible heavy penalties, some Tingguians, an indigenous people group in eastern Ilocos Norte, still produced homemade basi secretly. The well-to-do of the town knew about this and would take the risk to go there at night, unnoticed by the authorities, to buy the favorite local drink.

Pedro Mateo, a former cabeza de barangay of the town turned fugitive from the Spanish authorities, led the rebellion together with Ilocano-Tingguian Saralogo Ambaristo on September 8, 1807. Even before the outbreak of the revolt, Mateo had already been notorious for always finding himself against other government officials and their policies. Oftentimes, these ended in violent physical confrontations. It even came to a point that he was faced with multiple charges, including murder, giving him no other option than to hide in the mountains and seek refuge among his Tingguian friends. In the mountains he met other deserters and outlaws led by Ambaristo. Not long enough, the two organized a movement against the government and the local officials. For two months, they gathered more men in town to join them, and amassed ammunition and other weapons from as far as the garrisons of Vigan.

Various theories have been offered as to what the original agenda of the group was, from it being a non-violent collective airing of grievance to the alcalde mayor of Vigan, to an aggressive attempt to destabilize the Spanish government all the way to Manila. Unfortunately, local history does not remember too well the intents of the locals as it does with the revolt’s actual outcomes.

The first attack was made in the town of Sarrat, where they eventually killed all the guards and members of the pricipalia or the town’s elites. This was followed by other significant victories in the neighboring towns of Batac, San Nicolas, Laoag, Paoay, and Badoc before it reached its terminal in the battle of San Ildefonso in Ilocos Sur. Needless to say, the movement unfortunately died even before it even reached Vigan.

Antonio also wrote that Mateo’s group faced almost no resistance in Sinait, Cabugao, Lapog (present day San Juan) and Magsingal, and that they even gained support to their cause from the people of those towns. Meanwhile, the governor of Ilocos already assembled an army to confront the approaching rebellion at Gongogong river in San Ildefonso. With most of Mateo’s men only armed with bolos, and bows and arrows, they were easily decimated before the rifles and cannons of the governor’s troop on September 28, 1807. It has been said that the river became a river of blood when the massacre was over.

Shortly thereafter, Mateo and Ambaristo were eventually captured and they were both sentenced to death by hanging in the following month for rebellion. The public execution was done in the main plaza of Vigan, the present day Plaza Salcedo. The other surviving members of the rebellion, according to Tejada, were exiled in Mindoro, which explains the presence of a considerable population of Ilocano speakers in the island today.

Basi Today and the Revolt’s Rightful Place in History
A few years ago, in an attempt to make the Basi Revolt more relevant in this day and age, a play that recalls the events of the revolt was even staged during Piddig’s town fiesta. Sadly, however, the play was never shown again. As a cultural worker, I can only wish that the local government will continue such local initiatives that honor the memories and heroism of the fallen in 1807.

The most famous representations of the revolt, however, are on canvasses that are now housed in the National Museum – Vigan branch. Ilocano Esteban Villanueva painted 14 panels depicting the Basi Revolt in 1821, making the artwork one of the oldest extant paintings in the region to record an actual historical event. In 2012, Villanueva’s masterpieces were declared as National Cultural Treasures of the Philippines.


Before heading back home, Tejada also illustrated how basi is so essential to Ilocanos by singing lovely folk songs that mention drinking it. Recently, there has been an observed reintroduction of basi as a popular, fancy and versatile drink as well. The sugarcane alcohol now receives better packaging and branding, and has even made its way into bars as a base for Ilocano-inspired cocktails.

Although the little-known Basi Revolt was a failed movement, it paved the way for the emergence of other uprisings in northern Philippines. These ultimately contributed to the awakening and birth of the Philippine Revolution of 1898 – almost a century later after Mateo and Ambaristo made their bold attempt. The revolt represented more than man’s sheer love for alcohol. More importantly, it was a rally point in unity and nationalism. The Basi Revolt is to be remembered as the starting point of the Ilocano aspiration towards freedom, and as a genuine display of Filipino bravery and strength in “spirit” – pun intended.


*First published in Locale Philippines’ Drink Up: The Beverage Issue (2017).